Confessing to One Another
Question: I spoke to a priest who quoted James 5:14-15 to show me that it is our duty to confess our sins. ‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.’
Answer: It is indeed our duty to confess our sins. The question is, however, to whom should we confess?
James is giving instructions about the sick. Those who are gravely ill should call on the elders to come and pray for them. He mentions anointing with oil, which may possibly be a reference to the ceremonial or the medicinal use of oil (cf. Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:33-34). It is difficult to be categorical about its exact meaning in this passage, as there are no New Testament references to ceremonial anointing in the church.
James mentions the possibility that sickness may result from personal sin, though of course this is not always the case. If so, dealing with sin - not least by confessing to the person against whom one has sinned - will bring forgiveness.
James instructs Christians to ‘confess your faults to another.’ It should be noted that he does not tell us to confess our sin to a priest, but to one another. If I lied to a Christian brother, or sinned against him in any other way, I should speak to him, admit my mistake and ask him to forgive me.
This passage does not support the Sacrament of Penance. James says nothing about confessing to a priest, priestly absolution or works of penance – all of which are the essential aspects of the Sacrament. James speaks of elders (or presbyters); he does not even mention priests.
Moreover James’ words prove too much for the Catholic position. If the sentence 'Confess your faults to another' commands you to confess to a priest, then it must also mean that the priest should confess his sins to you as well (because James says ‘to another’) - which is hardly what the Catholic Church teaches.
The consequences of sin are twofold: sin incurs a debt to the Father; sin also injures human relations. We should be concerned about both aspects.
The Bible instructs us to seek reconciliation with our fellow people (see Matthew 5:23,24; Luke 17:3,4; Colossians 3:13). The reconciliation process involves confession of sin to the injured person, and that is what James is speaking about.
Moreover, the Christian is also primarily concerned about the spiritual consequences of his sins. Therefore he asks God the Father for his forgiveness, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray: ‘Our Father who is in heaven... forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’
The passage also highlights the importance of praying for healing. Not only the elders should pray for the sick, but all of us. ‘Pray for each other so that you may be healed,’ he tells us.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi